What's the Matter with Kathleen Sebelius?
From a partisan's perspective, the perfect politician is someone who loyally upholds the party line on issues, but still manages to win support from independents ...
From a partisan's perspective, the perfect politician is someone who loyally upholds the party line on issues, but still manages to win support from independents and members of the opposition. That description fits Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, which is why she would be a logical running mate for Barack Obama.
A couple of years ago, I was writing a feature on Democratic governors in Republican states and vice versa. I called up Joe Aistrup, a political scientist at Kansas State University, and asked, "Sebelius is a moderate, right?" He replied: "She's governed left of center."
Wait, the Democratic governor of Kansas, an iconically social conservative state, is left of center? It's true, and here's my favorite example to prove it.
Last year, Democrats in the U.S. Congress fretted over whether to include gender identity in a bill to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Ultimately, the provision was removed because gender identity was considered a poison pill -- controversial enough that it would have doomed the entire bill to failure.
Last year in Kansas, Sebelius issued an executive order to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Sebelius' order only applied to state government employment (that's all she could do without legislation), but the fact remains that she acted on transgender rights, a topic Congress wouldn't dare touch.
That isn't really atypical for Sebelius.
She has been at the center of one of the hottest battles in the country over global warming, after her administration rejected two new coal power plants last year. This year, she vetoed legislation that would have allowed the coal plants to go forward. She also vetoed a multi-faceted bill pushed by abortion opponents, the latest chapter in a long-running battle between the governor and pro-life lawmakers.
I could continue on other issues -- immigration, health care, education, taxes -- but I think you get the point. Sebelius is a Democrat who has governed like a Democrat in a state where President Bush took 62% of the vote in 2004. In spite of (because of?) that, she has remained popular. She won reelection in 2006 with 58% of the vote.
So, Democrats would have reason to hope that as a vice-presidential candidate Sebelius would appeal to Republicans and independents, but as a vice president she wouldn't commit partisan heresy. That's actually quite similar to the appeal of Obama to many Democrats; he's a fairly conventional Democrat on the issues who has a chance (if only a chance) to win moderate-to-conservative voters, due to his intelligence, his compelling life story and his conciliatory message.
It's fair to wonder whether Sebelius could replicate her success on the national level. If Republicans call her a liberal, however, she has a perfect comeback: "That's not what the people of Kansas think."
Other upsides: Having never served in Washington, Sebelius would fit with Obama's outsider message. She'd also help with female voters who have supported Hillary Clinton, without bringing any of the Clinton baggage.
There are downsides to Obama picking Sebelius. It's not obvious that she helps him win any particular state. Maybe she would help him a little bit in Ohio (where her father was governor), maybe a very little bit in Western Missouri and MAYBE she could put Kansas in play (I'm skeptical).
She'd also face the same questions any governor would face. Is she ready for the national political stage? Can she handle foreign policy? But, given her considerable strengths, if Obama thinks the answers to those questions are "yes," don't be surprised if he chooses Sebelius.
Previously in my vice-presidential series:
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